The First Post

In Scientific Practice on November 16, 2007 at 12:44 am

For a blog such as this, what could be a better “first post” than the famous Feynman lecture on “Cargo Cult Science”. This talk which is featured as the last chapter in, “Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman !”, was given as a commencement address at CalTech in 1974. The subtitle is, “Some remarks on science, pseudoscience and learning how not to fool yourself.”

Cargo Cult Science by Richard P. Feynman.

The point about scientific “integrity” that Feynman makes – to avoid fooling oneself – is as simple as it is profound. Most experiments are often conducted with a working hypothesis in mind. Sometimes this hypothesis is clearly articulated to oneself, but often its just a lingering expectation at the back of one’s mind. The trap then, is that its all too easy to “see” the results that concur with your hypothesis, and turn a blind eye to ones that don’t. In other words, to obtain the “desired” result ! This problem is especially severe when the given experiment doesn’t give one a clear, unambiguous result (and where a variety of conclusions can be drawn).

My own way of dealing with this ever-present threat is  – Try to prove yourself wrong every step of the way !  I try and conduct my experiments with the aim of trying to prove my own hypothesis about the problem WRONG ! And after trying this as hard as possible, if I find my hypothesis still holds, then to that extent I am more convinced about it. Of course, how hard one must try this, is also a question of degree, and how careful and relatively confident about the conclusions one wishes to be. All said and done, we are still fallible. Mistakes can be made, and made easily. And that is why I find myself going back to this essay often, especially in times when I think I am “slipping”.

There is much else that Feynman, in his inimitable style, talks about in this essay, but there will be other times to talk about those !


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